Raoul Peck is an internationally celebrated Haitian filmmaker of documentary and feature films (The Man on the Shore, Lumumba: Death of the Prophet) who, in the mid-1990s, was briefly the Minister of Culture for Haiti. In January 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was devastated by an earthquake that killed 250,000 people and left more than one-million people homeless – a 10th of the population. In his new documentary, Fatal Assistance, shot over two years, Peck examined the failure of the $11-billion international relief effort in which thousands of contracts were given to foreign companies while Haitians were mostly left out of the reconstruction process. And only a fraction of the money made it to those in need.
I spoke to Peck by phone from Paris.
You show a tragedy that was compounded by arrogance and venality and political posturing – what you call the ‘paternalistic monster’ of international aid. What can an ordinary, well-meaning person do to help?
Be more involved. Ask questions. Using the excuse of the emergency, many NGO’s violated the basic principles and created great problems. The first rule is to do no harm: Don’t leave a big footprint by undermining local authorities, or importing merchandise that undermines the economy. And trust the local people to know what’s best for themselves.
One of the people who provides that in the film Priscilla Phelps, an American housing advisor with the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, who is seen repeatedly challenging the decision-making process. How did you find her?
For the first six or eight months, we talked to a lot of different people and went different places. Priscilla was one of the people working for IHRC I met early on, and she clearly knew her stuff. She had been in the field, dealing with victims of the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, and she has a way of summarizing issues that is very filmic.
In an otherwise hard-hitting film, you use a rather poetic device with a voiceover structure – letters between a foreign aid worker and a male Haitian resident. What drew you to this technique?
I realized that this story was too complex and I had to make it more personal, to put my own interpretation on the events. The man’s observations were my own, from my journal, where I’d record my mood, what was making me angry, what was going on each day. The women’s voices were edited from a real woman’s e-mails, but she did not want her name used. Much of this was too intimate and painful for her.
Do you think film can help?
I wanted to provoke the discussion and the film has already done that. I could have made a much more radical and destructive film. In the 400 hours of material, there are some pretty heavy scandals. It wasn’t my goal to bring anyone down but to get people to question how this machine works. The film has been widely seen, especially in Haiti, and led to extensive discussions on radio and in the government, even at the American Embassy.
In Berlin, someone asked me: ‘What do you say to the German grandmother who sent her 50 euros to the poor Haitian children?’ The cynic might say, ‘Well, it didn’t make much difference to the Haitians because they didn’t see the money.’ The issue here is to look at the machine between the donor and the receiver, which is not working in either of their interests.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Fatal Assistance screens May 5, 6 p.m, ROM Theatre.